Sister Act – Milton Keynes Theatre

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Music: Alan Menkin

Lyrics: Glenn Slater

Book: Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner

Director: Bill Buckhurst

Based on the 1992 classic movie of the same name, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Sister Act has been adapted into a joyous stage musical. The musical largely follows the movie plot (but is set in the 1970s) of Deloris Van-Cartier (Sandra Marvin), a small-time club singer who must go into witness protection having been a witness to a murder at the hands of her gangster boyfriend. The officer in charge of her safety, ‘Steady’ Eddie Southern (Graham Macduff) places her in the most unlikely sanctuary, a Roman Catholic convent, with hilarious consequences.

The show’s design is conceptually brilliant, grabbing the attention of the audience from the very moment they step into the auditorium. Morgan Large has done an exceptional job of marrying the gothic and ornate features of religious architecture and the bright brassy showiness of the entertainment world. The main set, which stays throughout, is made of receding circular gothic archways, emulating the gorgeous stained-glass windows that can be found in any large church, it is imposing yet beautiful, with neon lights embedded around the arches thus perfectly marrying the two worlds of the protagonist.

Large’s kaleidoscopic approach to colour across the show is a marvel to observe, as Deloris breathes life into the drab and solemn convent, so too does the set and costume begin to brighten, until we reach the climatic heights and full-on technicolour glitter fest that is Raise Your Voice, the result being a satisfying visual journey through the colour of the narrative.

Staying true to its roots in the original movie, the audience is immediately charmed by the comically off-key cacophony of sound from the choir as led by Sister Mary Lazarus (Anne Smith). There are several lines and comical moments within the musical that have been lifted verbatim from the movie, but it also creates its own identity as a show. Director Bill Buckhurst and choreographer Alistair David have together created a piece that marries slick syncopated movement with cartoonish comedy. Some highlights are the escape sequence where Deloris runs to the police having witnessed the murder, which appears to have been lifted right out of a Scooby Doo cartoon. As the incompetent henchmen of violent gangster Curtis Jackson (Jeremy Secomb) attempt to catch and silence Deloris, we see a comedy of errors unfold in a delightfully caricatured half-speed chase.

The henchmen themselves are a wonderfully cackhanded mob, a kind of cross between the Osmonds and something you would find in a Will Ferrell sketch. During When I Find My Baby, their Osmond-style choreography coupled with Tim Mitchell’s fluffy pink lighting design is a hilarious juxtaposition to Glenn Slater’s psychotic and violent lyrics.

At the heart of the narrative is, of course, brassy club singer Doloris Van-Cartier and Sandra Marvin does an excellent job in the central role. Vocally, she is a bonafide powerhouse with a goosebump-raising voice. Deloris is endearingly flawed as a character and Marvin is able to expertly shift between the vulnerability of the frightened witness and the self-assured showgirl. She is delightfully out of place in the convent as she comes to terms with her new reality in It’s Good To Be A Nun, and her anxiety manifests brilliantly against the stoic stiffness of the nuns. During Raise Your Voice, she is a commanding presence with an itchy and urgent comedic timing that plays beautifully against the rigidity of Mother Superior (Lesley Joseph). Joseph is of course famous for her comedic talent and does not disappoint in this role; in particular, as Act II gathers pace, Joseph shines.

Whilst this is undoubtedly an excellent offering of musical theatre, it does have its drawbacks; most notably, within the first act. Apart from a couple of gags at the beginning courtesy of the choir of nuns, it is a bit of a slow starter. While the show is scored by the incomparable Alan Menken, many of the early songs lack the hook that draws in the audience and come across as formulaic and dull. However, as with the source material, as soon as Deloris begins to interact with the nuns of the convent, the story (and the music) hits its stride and doesn’t break pace.

On press night, there were a few minor technical niggles, notably during the dreamy rendition of Sister Act, a stuttering haze machine struggled to fill space and very noticeably cut off downstage centre thus spoiling the ethereal image that they were trying to create. Whilst this was distracting, technical issues do arise in live theatre and ultimately it didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show.

Overall, this is a glorious piece of escapism that despite its threadbare narrative in the first act, will have any audience belly laughing, ugly crying and ultimately rejoicing in the aisles. An uncomplicated, bright, and upbeat musical which is just the tonic we need right now.

Runs Until 26 November 2022 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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